The Kansas Supreme Court will decide whether the Legislature’s increase to K-12 education funding meets constitutional requirements after peppering the state’s attorneys with questions Tuesday morning about the school finance plan’s structure and level of funding.
In oral arguments Tuesday, the state defended its plan to give K-12 schools another $195 million in the coming school year and $292 million in the 2018-2019 school year, saying it was calculated to help at-risk students and achieve educational standards. An attorney for a group of school districts suing the state over its funding argued Tuesday that schools need another $567 million and $893 million in the next two years to achieve those educational standards, called the Rose standards.
Attorneys for the state — as well as some lawmakers — said they hope the court will rule the formula constitutional or keep it in place for two or more years — long enough that the Legislature can
evaluate the plan’s effects on students’ educational attainments. Alan Rupe, an attorney for the school districts, and some other lawmakers are hoping the court will strike the plan down in favor of more funding for schools. The Supreme Court is charged with deciding whether the new plan is constitutional after ruling funding unconstitutional in March. It could bring lawmakers back for a special session this year if they find the funding formula unacceptable.
Justices pressed Kansas Solicitor General Stephen McAllister and former Sen. Jeff King, an attorney representing the Legislature, on whether the plan was indeed calculated to fund K-12 education under the Rose standards. Some asked why lawmakers chose to add $292 million to school funding rather than the $893 million supported by attorneys for the school districts and recommended by the Kansas State Board of Education. Lawmakers paid King a total of $65,000 to help craft the funding plan and defend it in a court filing.
More money for schools
Justice Lee Johnson indicated during the court’s questioning of King that he and other justices were “skeptical” of the school funding formula. He argued that the funding increase for the coming budget year should be considered a $195 million increase spread over three years because the state implemented a block-grant funding system in 2015.
“You’ve phased in the $194 million over a three-year period because it’s the only significant increase in three years,” he said.
McAllister and King have argued in court filings and in oral arguments Tuesday that the funding increase is specifically targeted to help at-risk students that the court said were not meeting educational standards when it ruled funding unconstitutional in March. The two attorneys representing the state and Legislature have said the new formula was calculated to bring schools up to the Rose standards and suggested that the plan needs time to be evaluated. They have said the board of education’s recommendation that the state spend another $893 million goes above and beyond the Rose standards and that it was not based on that criteria.
Kansas State Board of Education Chairman Jim Porter said in a phone interview after Tuesday’s arguments that he supported the board’s funding recommendation and that it was based on the Rose standards.
“That drove everything,” he said.
Rupe argued Tuesday that the Legislature came up with a funding increase it could afford and then “backed into” a model to fit that dollar amount. Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican, said that was false.
Rupe advocated for the $893 million increase recommended by the Board of Education and criticized lawmakers for not listening to that recommendation.
“The magnitude of the solution needs to meet the magnitude of the problem,” he said Tuesday.
State Rep. Melissa Rooker, a Fairway Republican, said she supported the higher-level of funding increase, but she said she didn’t think it should be funneled into schools all at once. She said districts need time to implement the extra resources, hire teachers and improve programs.
Where the money comes from
Justices and Rupe also criticized the state for what they see as an increasing reliance on local funding for schools rather than for state aid. That creates an equity problem, justices said, because wealthier parts of the state can direct local money into their schools that poorer districts cannot.
McAllister said he didn’t deny that the reliance on local money had increased, but he said he wasn’t sure that was necessarily unconstitutional.
Rupe said the local funding reliance created an equity issue and that the state had to prove that its formula met the adequate funding level demanded by the state constitution without jeopardizing equity.
“If you give a head start to some districts, other districts don’t catch up,” Rupe said.
Denning said the state could not come up with any more money for schools in the short term without cutting Medicaid or payments to the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System.
“You have to have some money in your checking account so you can pay your bills on time,” Denning said.
Special session possible
In a July 7 court filing and an interview after oral arguments, Rupe called on the Supreme Court to reject the plan and give the Legislature until this fall to come up with a new school funding formula. He said the state had “kicked that $600 million can down the road way too long” and that he hoped the court decided quickly in the case.
“The time is now,” Rupe said. “We need to have school funding at the constitutional level.”
That would bring lawmakers back for a special session, which Denning said he thought wouldn’t happen.
Rooker said she thought it would make more sense to give lawmakers time during next year’s legislative session to work on a new school funding formula if the Supreme Court strikes the plan, though she supports a larger funding increase than the state passed last month.
“That magnitude of additional resources ordered immediately this fall — it would be tough for the districts to deploy them,” she said.
Democratic Sen. Lynn Rogers, of Wichita, however, said he has assumed since the Legislature adjourned last month that lawmakers would end up having to come back for a special session and fix the school funding bill.
Gannon lawsuit stretches on
Attorneys for the state and Denning said it would take time to evaluate whether the new formula indeed meets the Rose standards it is intended to, but some justices criticized the state for wanting extra time after implementing a temporary block-grant system in 2015 that lasted for two years. Rogers said Luke Gannon — the child who the lawsuit is named after — was in early elementary school when the case was filed in 2010.
“He’s in middle school or early high school. If we wait two or three more years, he’ll be graduating,” Rogers said. “We’ve already missed, lost a whole generation of kids getting an adequate education, and that’s what worries me of kicking the can down the road any longer than we already have.”
King argued repeatedly that the formula was targeted to improve outcomes for at-risk students, but he said it may take time to evaluate students’ outcomes under the plan.
Justice Dan Biles, who repeatedly pressed both McAllister and King, criticized that notion.
“All those kids will be on the street by the time that happens.”